Artistic Collaboration: Transforming Youth and Youth Justice by Integrating Arts

The room was silent. Twelve probation officers sat silently in a circle. Some glared at the floor, some looked at the ceiling. The African Jembe drums sat, one in front of each PO, a silent invitation. As the lead drummer began, they started to play along, hands gently against the taut skins of the drums, a whisper. Then a thump, then some missed beats, louder, a faltering rhythm, then laughter. One hour later, 12 PO’s were shaking the roof as they drummed together, beaming at each other and making music.

In our public schools and in our daily lives, or for young people in detention, too often we view art — writing, painting, music, theater — as an add-on, a luxury, something to be brought in only if we have the time or money. But in Los Angeles County, a groundbreaking collaborative is turning that idea on its head. The Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network is re-framing the arts, not as a feel-good bonus, but rather as the foundation for building wellness, health and resiliency in our young people — particularly those caught up in the justice system.

Three years ago, the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles began convening folks who provide arts-based programming to incarcerated youth. The groups ranged from organizations teaching kids to write, direct and act in their own plays to deeply reflective personal writing, but the groups shared common challenges and larger goals. We started small, with a few joint presentations about the importance of arts as a means to process trauma, as a healing-informed practice.

Momentum built quickly. By 2014, the group convinced more than 70 county probation officers to come to a full day of hands-on experiential training day. The deputies acted out goofy improv exercises, joined in focused circles writing a group poem and sat together in the theater, their hands in sync as they drummed ancient tribal rhythms. They shared the struggles and challenges they face through presenting improvised scenarios to the larger group, and amazingly, they shared all this with alumni of the programs — young people who had once been part of their caseloads.